Sunday, January 29, 2012


I was born in May 1947. In only the first four years of my life has there been a Labour government that made a fundamental and lasting difference to the life of the nation. Subsequent administrations have certainly contributed to the lives of various groupings, but almost entirely in the realm of social policy. And none of these achievements – the Open University, say, or civil partnerships – is unimaginable under a relatively enlightened Tory government. What is more, many of the most far-reaching measures – reform of the divorce and abortion laws and abolition of the death penalty, for instance – have only prevailed through the stamina and determination of backbenchers introducing Private Members’ Bills.

Both Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson invoked Lenin’s phrase about the need to take over “the commanding heights of the economy”. Attlee achieved more by that measure than did Wilson. In 2008, when the Brown government began to take significant stakes in high street banks, I dared to think that this dream might come to pass after all. But the imperturbable city easily frightens ministers with patently empty but apparently convincing talk of the need to remain independent, as with sophistry about attracting “the best”. Someone who will only work for a salary to which is attached a seven-figure bonus is not interested in service, only in self-service. Personal greed is not some kind of measure of financial acumen. In any case, under a global financial crisis, how can any self-important trader be sure that there are jobs elsewhere ripe for the picking? The city plays many bluffs that need to be given short shrift.

When it is being “pragmatic” – a favourite term of Wilson’s that was taken up by Cameron – Labour offers merely a less economically competent alternative, to which voters turn only when the Tories are exhausted and corrupt (1964, 1997). But Labour must present itself as creative, energetic and fearless. Ahead of the last televised debate of the general election, I wrote to Gordon Brown, recalling the catalogue of Labour’s achievements that he had presented to conference some eighteen months earlier; it brought the hall to its feet. I vainly urged him to rerun the list in his television peroration. I still argue that Labour needs to think positively about what it has done; but even more so about what more it must do.

Governments of both left and right tend to move towards a consensual centre, thereby alienating their grassroots. Labour leaders shrug off the cries of betrayal. Wilson argued that Labour was always “broad church”. Jim Callaghan remarked that “you can never reach the promised land. You can march towards it”.

Such positions rationalise those governmental experiences that Rab Butler dubbed “the art of the possible”. Only in the unusually non-conformist climate of the immediate post-war years did a Labour cabinet feel sufficiently confident to implement a truly radical and reformist programme. That Attlee’s majority fell from 146 seats to a mere five at the subsequent general election suggests that these measure were unpopular. In fact, the 1950 election produced a bizarre distribution of spoils, for Labour actually increased its vote share on 1945. At a further election eighteen months later, Churchill was returned to power despite that Labour won a greater share of the vote than the Tories, its highest ever indeed. (This anomaly is explained by the Liberals recording their lowest ever share of the vote). Labour was then out of office for thirteen years.

The most cogent criticism of the Labour opposition under Ed Miliband is that it is being too timid. Nobody makes cracks about “Red Ed” these days. I have plenty of proposals for radical policies that would get Labour elected with a comfortable majority. But a programme for government may wait until nearer the end of this parliament. We are not yet two years in to government by coalition and an opposition’s job at this juncture is roundly to oppose. This is a role that Miliband and his team have played with no more than fitful effect. A major part of the failure concerns the Labour front bench’s willingness to let Cameron make the running, score points at will (I know little of sport so I may be mixing some metaphors here) and persuade large swathes of the electorate to believe that all the pain being applied with such relish by the Tories (and such discomfort by the Liberal Democrats) is really the fault of Labour.

Cameron may be intending to fight the next general election on the record of the Brown rather than of his own administration. This would be a curious and probably unprecedented circumstance but shadow ministers have done all they may to encourage him in any belief that such a strategy might pay dividends. During the financial crisis of 2008-09, of which Gordon Brown’s handling won great credit from leading economists around the world, the Tory opposition scorned Labour’s wholly justified position that the crisis was global in nature. Needless to say, the present government blames world conditions – in particular those within the Eurozone – for the current slide into recession, along with “the mess” that Labour bequeathed. It refuses to accept any responsibility for its own actions, which, thus far, have only achieved an increase rather than a cut in the deficit but deep cuts in the welfare state, along with a systematic preparation of both the NHS and the primary, secondary and higher education networks for wholesale privatisation. These things, we are regularly told, are “necessary”.

Labour seems to have decided to roll over and submit to this lamentable catalogue of abnegation of public responsibility. All it appears prepared to argue is for a temporary cut in VAT, the reduction of some bankers’ bonuses and some kind of unspecified revenge for the incidence of phone-hacking by journalists. The rest of Labour’s stance may be entirely embraced as temporising. There is undeniably a logic to this attitude, given that Miliband and Balls have effectively conceded that the last government “got it wrong” in almost every particular, which must infuriate Brown, Alistair Darling and indeed David Miliband.

Labour even seems incapable of negating the childish thrust, regularly rehearsed by coalition members and journalists alike, that Ed Miliband “knifed his brother in the back”. At the time of the autumn party conferences, Andrew Neil jovially suggested to Harriet Harman that Ed would never live this down. She ought to have had the wit to ask whether he would be putting to a leading Tory that Cameron back-stabbed David Davis. Because Labour is incapable of rebutting this canard, Cameron can rouse his backbenchers and the commentariat to orgasms of joy and admiration merely by rebuffing Miliband’s attempt to prise Cameron and Clegg apart with the line “it’s not like we’re brothers”. Is it beyond the wit of Labour’s scriptwriters to work up a new riff on the “two Davids” legend, this time with one strutting on the world stage and the other glowering among the also-rans? At least Ed invited his brother to serve. Cameron has put Davis out to grass.

I see that among “Executive Director” posts recently advertised by the Labour Party were those for Communications and for Rebuttal and Policy. We must hope that energetic and imaginative people were appointed. If nothing else, the job of rebuttal needs boldly ratchetting up with immediate effect.

Some significant opportunities have already been missed and will not come again. One was Libya. I doubt that there was deep public support for the government’s involvement in the Libyan civil war. Miliband had been opposed to the invasion of Iraq. He could have convincingly and consistently forged and led a parliamentary opposition to this enterprise, woundingly characterising it as Cameron’s amour propre and putting daily and unyielding pressure on the government to come clean about the true financial cost of the operation. Of course Cameron would have crowed about the fall of Gaddafi and made out that this “proved” that Labour was “wrong on this as on every other issue”, but such triumphalism is only ever temporary (as George W Bush foolishly claimed one month into the Iraq debacle: “job done”) and we now see the regime in Libya both threatened by a newly resurgent rump and accused of being as brutal as its hated predecessor. Such sagas are never “over”. There may yet be more costs to the Treasury.

Labour says that it will accept the government’s cuts, even those that hit Labour’s heartlands hardest. “Being responsible” they call it. This kind of stance has become the norm for Labour ever since Harold Wilson’s day. In ancient times, one of the methods whereby you could confidently arbitrate between Labour and Tory was how the two parties approached issues such as state aid, tax rates, NHS availability, immigration and so on. There was a handy rule of thumb: Labour took the view that if a few people got relief who had no need of it, that was a price worth paying for ensuring that those who were in need were helped; the Conservatives took the view that if a few people who needed relief failed to receive it, that was a price worth paying for ensuring that public funds did not go to waste. It is no longer possible to chart this philosophical difference between the two parties. Labour and the Tories only diverge on the level of aid to be denied. Otherwise, modern Labour subscribes to the tabloid scapegoating of “benefit cheats” just as much as Tories do.

What governments can afford is always more about politics than about economics. Instead of joining in the psychology and language of “cuts”, Labour should come at it from the vantage point of imagining a clean sheet and then start to pencil in what it would spend. Looked at from that perspective, it is much easier to espouse, for instance, a policy that does not allow for tax avoidance, instead of the much more fraught exercise of trying to erode a status quo of sharp practice and finagling.

It is a puzzlement that, over its last thirteen years in power, Labour never managed to close the many loopholes in the taxation system that allow those who can afford smart accountants to avoid paying their dues. Cameron takes the line that he needn’t make any reforms that Labour failed to make because Miliband has no grounds for complaint. Miliband can scotch that at once; two wrongs don’t make a right; even though it wasn’t done then, it must be done now. Tax avoidance is a major industry in Britain, but even without starting again with tax law it should not be beyond the wit of either Treasury or HMRC number-crunchers to scale it down significantly, if not eradicate it altogether. But Labour could begin by determining that the very profession of accountancy, the raison d’être of which is the avoidance of tax, be itself taxed as the luxury of the rich. Then we might be getting some place.

A method of avoiding tax much favoured by the mega-rich is the practise of dissembling in the matter of where one lives. The issue of “non doms”, that greatly exercised politicians and commentators on all sides a year or two ago, has dropped off the agenda in favour of high earnings. But moving one’s tax base – or the threat of doing so – remains a ploy for the powerful. The question of whether someone who lives abroad for tax purposes should enjoy status privileges in Britain is, to my mind, an irrelevant and misleading question. Where someone designates her or his principal residence is far too manipulable a matter. After all, the proprietor of The Daily Mail lives to all intents and purposes in Wiltshire but, by some sleight of hand, pays tax as a resident of Paris at a much more favourable rate than do run-of-the-mill Wiltshire multi-millionaires. Those who bear the onerous task of owning The Daily Telegraph from their tax exile in Monaco must laugh to scorn the fainthearted level of graft in the Westminster village, as so comprehensively uncovered by their organ. Moat-cleaning indeed! Why not acquire a Channel Island? That’s a vastly more cost-effective scam.

The problem of non doms is readily solved. Income should be taxed not on the basis of where the earner lives but where the income is earned. Better yet, follow the practice of the IRS in the United States: tax without reference to either the location of the earner’s domicile or the country of the income’s origin. To avoid taxation, Americans have to renounce their US citizenship and even after that their US income is taxed on the same basis as that of a guest worker. If Americans can live with such a system, Brits sure as hell can too.

Perhaps there would be a degree of permanent departure from these shores among those unwilling to submit to contributing an appropriate proportion of their wealth to public provision. Such people merit a one-word response: “Goodbye”. If, to continue owning several mansions and a private jet, they are obliged to be based in a country where, beyond their gated communities, they are surrounded by abject poverty, that is for their consciences to reconcile. But it is a self-serving myth that our industries cannot survive without greedy, grasping individuals. They can and will survive (the BBC has survived the departure of Jonathan Ross, for instance) because there are always people who are thoughtful as well as talented, who want work that is stimulating first and lucrative only as may be, and who will choose to stay in a decent society that diligently cares for all its members. Let those perpared to live abroad for tax purposes lose their right to British citizenship altogether. That would sort the merely greedy from the downright criminal.

Starting again from scratch on public spending, Labour would soon find many causes that do not merit support from the public purse. Such an exercise would readily release the funds that would be required for an equable welfare state and a properly financed state system for health, education, policing and local services.

Of course there are risks in pursuing such policies. The press barons (non doms all) will hit back through their newspapers. But that is a bridge that Miliband has already burned. Right back to the last war, party leaders who made themselves amenable to Fleet Street, even if only by bestowing knighthoods, received a largely favourable press: Wilson, Thatcher, Blair, Cameron. Those who paid less attention to the press – Douglas Home, Heath, Callaghan, Foot, Kinnock, Major, Hague, Duncan Smith, Brown – were increasingly pilloried. In this dynamic, Rupert Murdoch was the chief instigator and the others dutifully followed. In declaring war on News International, Miliband has ensured that the press generally will be hostile. There is much for the Executive Director for Rebuttal to do.

On one matter, the press is primed to make life difficult for leaders who suffer a particular sort of misfortune – and Miliband presently suffers it. It is a negative finding by opinion polls. I have long argued that polling organisations offer an utterly misleading pseudo-science that suits – and may very well be tailored to suit – the newspapers that carry their “findings”. On one of the slowest of news days, Boxing Day last year, The Guardian gleefully trumpeted an ICM poll that allowed it to headline its first leader, with almost indecent relish: “Cameron in command”. The paper was rewarded with days and days of name-checks across the media. A month later, ICM furnished it with figures that gave the Tories a clear lead. That day’s leader was stern: “Rogue polls are very rare. Most polls currently put the Tories ahead … the polls are broadly right. And today’s poll is right. Better get used to it”.

Well, let’s just see. How many thousands of people were interviewed by ICM’s cold-callers? Oh right: 1,003. That is around 0.002 percent of the UK electorate. How much certainty would you be prepared to erect on such minuscule foundations? Ah, but ICM (as do all polling organisations) has anticipated that. “Data were weighted to the profile of all adults aged 18+ (including non telephone owning households). Data were weighted by sex, age, social class, household tenure, work status and region. Targets for the weighted data were derived from the National Readership survey, a random probability survey comprising 36,000 [that’s 0.08 percent of the UK electorate] random face-to-face interviews conducted annually. The data were further weighted by declared votes in the 2010 general election”.

In other words, the data that ICM gathers from this tiny sample of people who happened to answer the phone is not presented as is but is massaged by a process that is not disclosed. In a dictatorship, one imagines, the figures would be massaged by a combination of bribery and threat from the regime. Obviously that doesn’t happen in Britain but we are entitled to be sceptical of any undisclosed system of presenting data that is used for propaganda purposes. And then there is a factor that cannot be weighted, even by experienced masseurs: what percentage of respondents may be trusted to tell the truth?

“Rogue polls are very rare”. Oh yeah? Notoriously, the polls misforecast the outcome of the 1992 general election, even up to the BBC exit poll conducted on the day as voters were leaving the booths. Lots of rogues there. And I recall the 2004 US elections. I was staying with a friend and unable to sit up all night with the results as is my wont. Eccentrically, my friend (a BBC woman) had switched to ITV’s coverage and we heard the famous MORI pollster Robert Worcester tell Alastair Stewart that he was “calling” the election for John Kerry. We went to bed elated and rose to deflation. Worcester was subsequently knighted for services to misinformation.

There is a more reliable guide to political sympathy than opinion polls. It is actual votes in ballot boxes. Five mainland by-elections were held last year, the last just a week before ICM completed its fieldwork for the findings published on December 26th. Even taking into account the distortion caused by the vote at Inverclyde in June (where the SNP advanced against all other parties but Labour held on), the average increase in Labour’s vote in the five polls was 8.9 percent. In the first three of these by-elections, each called in circumstances that normally would lead to a certain resentment of the defending party, Labour increased its vote by an average of 11.9 percent. At Feltham and Heston on December 15th, it was 8.6 percent and here, for the first time in any of these ballots, the Tories came as high as second. Difficult to found an image of “Cameron in command” on these results.

But the Tory press – and, under its influence, the supposedly disinterested broadcast news – prefers the reading of the polling organisations because it suits their agenda. The Guardian too is happier with the ICM data than with real votes: after all, it still has to justify its journalism that relentlessly undermined Gordon Brown and its editorial support of the Liberal Democrats at the general election that helped to bring about the coalition with the Tories.

Labour’s new Executive Director of Rebuttal should quickly establish the convention that Labour discounts opinion polls and only recognises voting results. Every time Martha Kearney or Jeremy Paxman tells a Labour representative that the party is doing badly in the polls, the response should be to quote the by-elections. And when and if a by-election proves bad for Labour, it can be addressed as a real rather than a fantasy problem. There is much rebuilding to be done.

Monday, January 16, 2012



In the previous canto of this lamentation for the independent, individual retailer, I limned the way department stores have been subsumed into uniform chains, like Debenhams and House of Fraser. But some of these chains are not all that they seem. For instance, BHS, Burton, Topshop, Dorothy Perkins and others have been herded together under the ownership of that ornament on the British scene Philip Green, knighted for his services to tax avoidance, and his fellow entrepreneur and wife, Tina. This is where liberal capitalism leads: a handful of billionaires who decide everything that the marketplace will trade, just as Marx anticipated.

JK Galbraith expounded the privileged position of captains of industry more than fifty years ago. He was writing of a very different sort of economy, driven by productive rather than service industries. The billionaires with whose reputations he had grown up in North America – Henry Ford, EH Harriman, Andrew Carnegie, John D Rockefeller, JP Morgan, William Randolph Hearst – had generally either made things (automobiles, railroads, steel) or constructed enabling empires (oil, personal banking, publishing).

The Romford branch of Sainsbury's, more than a century ago

“Without question,” wrote Galbraith, “the individual with the greatest stake in the present economic goals is the businessman – more precisely, perhaps, the important business executive. If production is of preoccupying importance he, as the man with the traditional and established right to the title of producer, will be the dominant figure in the social constellation. Society will accord him prestige appropriate to the role he plays; what may well be less important, he will be able, without difficulty or criticism, to command an income that is related to his prestige. As production has increasingly monopolized our economic attitudes, the business executive has grown in esteem. So long as inequality was a matter of serious concern the tycoon had, at best, an ambiguous position. He performed a function of obvious urgency. But he was also regularly accused of taking far too much for his services. As concern for inequality has declined, this reaction has disappeared. The businessman is no longer subject to a serious challenge of any sort” [The Affluent Society, 1958].

Prof Galbraith’s description of inequality as being formerly “a matter of serious concern” refers to a now far-distant time. Socialism was effectively dead in the USA by the end of the 1930s, in Britain by the end of the 1950s and in Galbraith’s native Canada by the mid-1960s. And now of course production no longer has any monopoly on the economy either side of the Atlantic. These days, a producer is usually understood to be someone in charge of movies, adverts, software, music, television programmes. Most of us in the west toil in service industries. The making of machines, vehicles, implements, garments, furnishings and toys is almost entirely confined to the Far East. Our billionaires are the asset strippers, speculators, venture capitalists and money manipulators who produce nothing but who feed off the toil of low-paid workers in the teeming nations of the developing economies.

Once these buccaneers have grown rich, they naturally like to own things that bespeak their wealth: property, private jets and yachts, customised cars, fine art, trophy wives and, most important of all, businesses. There are some assets, both the initial acquisition and the continuing upkeep of which may only be afforded by multi-millionaires, because they are apt to bleed money and require constant feeding: newspapers, football clubs, hotels, theatres, and movie and television production houses. A safer bet, provided the owner is a shrewd re-investor, is the retail chain. But the biggest chains have been built over generations, mostly within a family: Sainsbury, Walton, Morrison. So my argument comes finally to the biggest kind of chain store.

Of all the perfectly horrible developments in the retail trade since the Second World War. the relentless swamping of the world by superstores has been both in itself the worst and the one chiefly responsible for all the other most horrible developments. The boards of superstores (and their shareholders) seek only to maximize their profits. Look at the regular lists of the richest people in Britain and you will note how many of the names near the top of the list are those of directors of superstores or of companies engaged not in the production of items but in the packaging of items sold in superstores.

Packing 'em in: trolleys at Morrisons

The big stores oversee the permanent buyer-for-retail’s market they have stimulated. They are so powerful that they fix prices, determining the fates of every area of the farming effort, both in this country and throughout the world’s producing nations. They require blemish-free, regular-shaped produce all year round and in predictable quantity. Any wholesaler unable to guarantee this unnatural supply is simply squeezed out of the business. The big stores settle for nothing less than exactly what they want on their own brutal terms.

I once met a former supplier to the supermarkets who told me horrendous tales of the profound ignorance of the buyers – even the chief buyers – who represent the big stores. Characteristically, these tribunes of the shopping people know nothing of seasonality, growing conditions, available varieties or any other practicality of agriculture, by this man’s account. They form categorical, non-negotiable conclusions based on whim, even about items the taste of which they personally do not care for. This at any rate was what he found and he quoted chapter and verse that had the smack of lived experience, gnawing at him in his enforced, premature retirement.

So what these stores, in their ignorance, don’t want falls out of production and customers are obliged to settle for what the superstores have determined that they will have. You can whistle if you want an item that doesn’t confirm to the supermarket’s crass standards. It isn’t profitable so it is ruthlessly culled or made palatable to the taste of the lowest common denominator and so of no interest to you.

It isn’t any use you preferring fruit with the beautiful taste that can only be produced by the natural ripening process in season. Such fruit is only available if you grow it yourself or travel to where it grows plentifully or have access to one of the small-scale specialist growers grimly hanging on to provide those who are willing to go to some trouble for decent merchandise and to be patient for the appropriate time of year. Those who cannot wait until weeks after Wimbledon and who have never tasted a truly delicious strawberry full of in-season juice (especially a tiny wild one) will buy their oversized, flown-in, force-ripened ones in, say, January and imagine that is what a strawberry is like.

Farmers who cannot get by on a large enough fan-base for organic, local and seasonal produce need to be ruthless themselves in order to maximize their yields to satisfy the stores. Pesticides and other chemicals must be applied in industrial quantities to preserve the eerily perfect appearance of the fruit and vegetables. These treatments have their nuclear effect on the insects that feed on the crop margins. They also prevent birds, small mammals and other creatures from taking their share both of the crops and of the insects. These creatures are poisoned or genetically altered by imbibing the chemicals through the flesh of either the crops or the insects. When they do not take the adulterated flesh, they starve.

A branch of Safeway in Cardiff, closed at the end of last century

Denied a healthy food source, the wild creatures die out. The buyer of the unearthly orange-coloured carrot, perfectly straight and with no blemish on its skin but tasting only of rinsing water and slightly of chemicals is unconcerned that a sub-species of shrew or a variety of field butterfly or a type of shrike disappears from its last habitat. But the world is poorer for it. The world is poorer for the decline of good taste in the carrot too.

The appearance of the countryside has radically altered in my lifetime. Modest fields of mixed, rotating crops that fell to the plough in time for the Harvest Festival have been replaced by vast vistas of fast-growing animal fodder. Thanks to the ubiquitous spread of the brassica appropriately called rape, Blake’s England has become an acid yellow and unpleasant land.

Animal farming has changed too. Pandemics of disease – foot and mouth, bovine spongiform encephalopathy – are spread readily in factory-farming conditions and so have wiped out flocks and herds. Consequently, local bloodlines are disrupted and abandoned. Additionally, the narrow demands of supermarkets have put a premium on the meat, milk and other by-products of specific strains. So, for instance, what the Scots call the “heeland coo” is now common in many parts of Britain and no longer a beautiful beast peculiar to the Highlands. The countryside has become like the high street: physical character may distinguish one part from another but the introduced elements are the same all over the country so that a field in Dorset sustains the same inhabitants as a dale in Yorkshire.

Having ruined the food industry, the supermarkets went after other businesses to undermine. First there was a return to the high street with an explosion of small-scale marts, also located in residential areas and small towns – Tesco Express was the leader of this trend. This initiative was a direct challenge to second-rank chains like 7-Eleven (now extinct in the UK), Spar and Budgens as well as to individual corner shops. Then, in September 2005, Tesco opened in Manchester its first non-food supermarket. This upped the anti even further. Whatever you sell – yes, you sir, the ironmonger who used to be the star of your high street, and you madam, the modest draper whose shop has been adored by its regulars since the 1920s – you are powerless against the big guys.

The conventions established in superstores have spread to other retailers that have sufficiently large branches to adopt them. For instance, many stores have done away with the old-fashioned counter system and replaced it with supermarket-style checkouts. Typically, they have found that the checkouts require fewer staff, because all the transactions are concentrated in one place. Thus, as long as at least one of the tills in a row even of ten or twelve is in operation, customers are only likely to complain about being made to wait to complete their purchase if ungrateful people like me are in the queue.

Superstore policies have done damage far beyond the field of diverse retail. Because these stores buy in bulk and sell at speed and in quantity – “pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap” to quote the founding motto of Sam Walton’s Walmart megaliths n the US – they require produce to be transported, delivered, stored and sold in regular-sized units – what restaurant chains call “portion control”.

The display of loose, unpackaged produce takes a very lowly second-place to regulation quantity packs, inevitably pitched at the conventionally-sized family. As with the siting of venues for the benefit of car-drivers, so this packaging culture discriminates against the single person or the household whose members have divergent needs and tastes. It also discourages those who prefer to pick over the selection and choose what they want. With some fruits and vegetables, this is critical. Only a nincompoop buys an onion that is less than hard as nails because as soon as it softens an onion is past its best. When you may only buy a sealed bag containing eight or ten onions, it is impossible to determine whether all the onions are sufficiently hard (if indeed any of them are) and anyway you are probably being obliged to purchase more than you require.

Pitsea landfill site

Packaging is not designed to help the customer, save for those who have been conditioned by the superstores – and in the nature of things, these are an increasing proportion of the total – to settle for what they are given. And packaging as an industry has grown fat on the backs of the superstores’ requirements. Most of this packaging, even that part of it that is recyclable, is added to the mountain of landfill garbage that the world generates in self-defeating quantities. Much of it ends up polluting the oceans as well as the land and much of it is fatally ingested by wild creatures. Once again, Tesco and co are making a decisive contribution to the extinction of the planet’s dwindling wildlife.

What can be done to curb the dominance of the superstores? In the last few days, we have seen that they may already carry the seeds of their own destruction. Tesco suffered a much poorer Christmas season than it had anticipated, was obliged to issue a profits warning and saw as much as £5bn wiped off the value of the company in a single day’s share trading. That it can sustain such a loss without being consigned to the same basket-case basket as HMV, Thorntons and Mothercare says a lot about its expectation of continuing profit and its vast size: it employs almost half a million people worldwide.

Why did Tesco have such a bad Christmas? Part of it is down to governmental manipulation of the economy. The Tories prefer to squeeze hardest those social groups least likely to support the party, so the C2 and D groups – for whom shopping for daily food and household basics comprise their big-ticket spending – are the ones having to cut that kind of spending. (Argos, the down-market catalogue chain, has seen a comparable decline in its profits). By contrast, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, whose customer base is more middle class, have been less affected by the recession.

But there is also a technological ingredient in the changing fortunes of the supermarket giants. John Lewis, along with its subsidiary Waitrose, has prospered not only from the relative resilience of better-heeled customers but also from anticipating the nature of the growth of on-line shopping. Andy Street, the John Lewis managing director, told The World at One the other day that the secret was to manage a combination of on-line ordering and in-store collection: “bricks and clicks” he calls it. Tesco may not yet have devoted enough planning to what is called a “multi-channel strategy”.

Nevertheless, Tesco is still comfortably the market-share leader, the 30 percent that it takes of the market remaining nearly double that of its nearest rival, Asda (which is the British identity of Walmart). Despite a healthy Christmas, Sainsbury’s remains about 0.5 percent behind Asda. The superstore sector as a whole grew by nearly five percent last year.

Monopoly legislation defines a “classic monopoly” as 25 percent of market share in a given sector. But when the Competition Commission considered the case of Tesco in 2007, it did nothing to threaten the company’s position. This despite that, when Morrisons bought Safeway in 2004, the Commission obliged Morrisons to part with 52 of the acquired stores, ten of which were bought by Tesco. It seems that there is one rule for Tesco and one for everyone else.

Mini-Tescos invade the high street: this one is in Bedford

What can be done to curb the over-mighty superstores? A widespread determination among shoppers to support independent retailers, local traders and small, specialist chains would be the most effective weapon, but contemporary society has learnt to believe that it values convenience above all else – and remember that an early name for the multi-purpose chain was “the convenience store”. One might think that the surprising popularity of food programmes on television would encourage viewers to favour locally-grown and seasonal produce. But the telly chefs themselves do not follow the implications of their trade. The most depressing aspect of Antony Worrall Thompson’s recent shameful shoplifting escapade was that it took place at his local branch of Tesco.

The government could support the independent and small-scale retailer against the huge conglomerates by adjusting the business rate. Why not abolish the taxation altogether for enterprises whose premises and workforce are below a certain size? Another route to restricting the power of the superstores would play its part in a piece of social engineering that I have long advocated. My argument goes like this:

Whenever governments attempt to intervene in private activities that have a deleterious effect on those who pursue them (and, though this is routinely ignored in the argument, on others too), people complain about “the nanny state”. Oddly enough, the same people scamper to nanny NHS when they begin to suffer the diseases caused by smoking, drinking, obesity and so on. This point might usefully be made more often.

The logo of an anti-Tesco website

Recurrent proposals for price controls and consumption restrictions, advertising and sponsorship bans and other such measures (ones that also punish responsible consumption and adversely affect enterprises that are innocent third parties) are always fiercely fended off by vested interests. Rather than fixing a minimum price for alcohol, a simpler measure would be to revoke the licences of all supermarkets and non-specialist chains to sell alcohol and indeed smoking materials. This would also be a useful counter-balance to the all-purpose chains that have driven so many off-licences, pubs and newsagent/tobacconists out of business. Many young people find an off-licence a rather more daunting outlet than a corner Costcutter with its discounted plonk and strong beers.

Then, an enlightened Chancellor might impose new, swingeing duties on smoking materials and alcohol that are strictly and accountably ring-fenced for payment direct to the NHS, so that smokers and drinkers may know that they are contributing towards the treatment that they will themselves require. A similar imposition might be made on processed foods, using a sliding scale dictated by objective nutritional assessments, with more stringent tests and surcharges imposed on catering supplies, the contents of which are not (but could be and should be) vouchsafed to consumers. If that works well, all foodstuffs that cannot demonstrate that they are organic might subsequently be surcharged in the same way. Food producers will have an incentive to put themselves in a position where they can demonstrate the healthy nature of their ingredients and processes. This is taxation as organic carrot rather than as resented stick.

A further useful intervention by government would be the imposition of a surcharge on non-recyclable packaging, payable both by the supplier and by the retailer. This would favour, for instance, the greengrocer who sells loose vegetables in paper bags and the delicatessen dispensing cheese in greaseproof wrapping and other items in card tubs. The charge for a plastic bag should be increased vertiginously so that everyone painfully understands the virtue of the re-use of bags issued by the stores and the acquisition by the shopper of old-fashioned shopping bags and baskets constructed of natural materials.

It is not beyond the powers of ministers to restore a balanced cohesion to the state of British retail. Being realistic, though, it may be beyond their powers of imagination. CONCLUDED.

Friday, January 06, 2012



To continue the paean to independent retailers and their traditions of service:

Having swamped the town centres, the superstores promptly moved out again. Easily renegotiating or subverting regulations that govern planning permission, they annexed green-field sites beyond the conurbations, often – oh, the poetry of it – on the land of farmers bankrupted by their own policies (but I’ll come to those in due course). While out-of-town leviathans reinforce the transcendence of the great god Convenience – all you could ever want under one roof – they obviously discriminate against those dependent on public transport: the unregarded old and disabled, the bored and recalcitrant young and non-conformists like me who happen never to have learned to drive.

As a result of this concentration of diverse retail under single massive roofs, thousands of independent and specialist shops closed. Multi-purpose emporiums on single sites died too. When I was young, one of the great treats of visiting London was to dawdle round the department stores, most of which seemed to be owned by two proprietors, each of whom bestowed upon them his surname: Swan & Edgar, Dickens & Jones, Marshall & Snellgrove, Debenham & Freebody, Bourne & Hollingsworth, Derry & Toms, Arding & Hobbs.

Whiteley's in the early 1920s

Like Harrod’s and Liberty, Fortnum & Mason depends on its wealthy regulars to keep going. But the others – along with both Barker’s and Ponting’s in Kensington High Street, Jones Brothers on the Holloway Road and Maples the Tottenham Court Road furniture store (“see Maples and die”) – are gone, as are rather more recent multiple retailers that had huge London branches: Littlewoods, C&A and Allders. The founding branch of the Allders chain in Croydon does still trade under the brand, however. The much-loved store in Queensway, Whiteley’s, survives only as the name of a shell within which there is a mall made up of chain stores and a multiplex cinema. Gordon Selfridge’s world-famous Oxford Street store has effectively gone the same way.

Waring & Gillow lorded it before my time. That was a legendary store with branches in provincial cities such as Lancaster (where Gillow originated, I think) and Coventry. The store was the first to become a byword in furnishings for the middle class home. WS Gilbert makes mention of it in a lyric for HMS Pinafore.

The stores hit their stride in the mid-19th century. The most compelling account of them I know is Zola’s novel of 1883, Au bonheur des dames (my edition translates it as The Ladies’ Paradise), which sets a rather sentimentalized love story in an emporium based on the world’s largest retail outlet before World War I, Aristide Boucicaut’s Bon Marché in Haussmann’s rebuilt Paris. Boucicaut’s great perception was that his primary customers were female. In Zola’s docu-fiction version, his “sole passion was the conquest of Woman. He wanted her to be queen in his shop; he had built this temple for her in order to hold her at his mercy. His tactics were to intoxicate her with amorous attentions, to trade on her desires, and to exploit her excitement … his most inspired idea … was that of conquering the mother through the child … [he] stopped the mothers as they were walking past by offering pictures and balloons to their babies”. Perhaps the bosses of McDonald’s have read Zola.

The fabulous bon marché in Paris

Swan & Edgar commanded the primest of prime sites in London at what seemed the hub of the Empire (when there was still an Empire): the block between Piccadilly and Regent Street, fronting Piccadilly Circus. “Outside Swan & Edgar” was the traditional place to meet friends in town. This was despite that the railings separating the pavement from the road for the length of the store frontage were known as ‘the meat rack’ because so many rent boys lolled there, day and night. Swan & Edgar’s ruled from 1812 to 1982, a fabulous run in anybody’s book. Then it became Tower Records, then Virgin, then Zavvi, now something called The Sting, apparently a Dutch clothes store.

Swan & Edgar looms over Piccadilly Circus

Debenham’s shed the Freebody half, but thrives, much altered, as a down-market chain owned by a multinational buy-out consortium. It has branches from Iceland to Qatar. The House of Fraser, last owner of Dickens & Jones, announced that store’s closure in 2005. Fraser have also folded into its own identity other great names (DH Evans, Kendals of Manchester, Barker’s, Baird of Wishaw, The Army & Navy among many) but preserved the historic brand of Jenners of Edinburgh. Like the House of Fraser, Fenwick and the liberally-managed John Lewis chain continue to expand. Bennett’s of Derby, reckoned to be the world’s senior department store, still stands. So do Peter Jones on Sloane Square and the store with the blithely Milliganesque name, HJ Knee of Trowbridge. But Biba, which succeeded Derry & Toms in Kensington, and, beyond London, David Morgan of Cardiff, Blinkhorn & Son of Gloucester and Robinson & Cleaver of Belfast went into oblivion.

Jenners of Prince's Street, Edinburgh – just what a department store should look like

The most beguiling London store of my childhood was the unique and now unimaginable one that specialized in “novelties, magic and tricks”: Ellisdon & Sons of High Holborn. I knew it first through its celebrated catalogue that listed all its treats in boxed sections with line drawings that must have dated from the 1930s. As far as my pocket money allowed, I ordered from this hilarious list: black-face soap, whoopee cushions, bird whistles, fake tooth gaps and so on. You could get plastic dog turds with which to outrage your Mum (who sportingly pretended to be fooled) and plastic spiders (“men scream, women swoon” shouted the catalogue which, even to my innocent sensibility, looked a somewhat over-egged claim). You could “learn to throw your voice”, which, the catalogue undertook, would cause chaos in the adult world. And there was the inspired Seebackroscope, basically a contraption containing a standard-issue mirror that allowed you to “spy on” people (especially courting couples, it was suggested) who were behind you. Such larks.

Where to find an indestructibe fried egg

Just before a seaside holiday, I received through the post a much-anticipated Ellisdon’s fried egg which I secreted in my bag. The hotel’s French mâitre d’, who anyway appeared ever on the edge of hysteria, most reluctantly agreed to have this hoax introduced into someone’s meal and, obligingly, my Dad ordered a mixed grill for breakfast and made great play of saving the plastic egg till last. The mâitre d’ hopped about agonised in the background, ready to replace the offending item with a proper egg. But he required the smelling salts when, later, I left the egg on the carpet outside the restaurant, surrounded by bits of (real) broken biscuit.

Another much loved store in High Holborn was Gamages, which ran a renowned mail order service: its catalogues are collectors’ items today. A typical ad for the store offered, as well as “an unlimited variety of attractive merchandise at money-saving prices”, a host of other facilities. These included a “luxuriously appointed” snack bar, the “largest and most up-to-date Salon in Central London”, “more than 200 different kinds of sandwiches” in the cocktail bar (beat that, Prêt) and, in two restaurants, “good, well-cooked food expeditiously served in comfortable surroundings. Moderate prices”.

1947 and crowds flock into Gamages

Simpson’s, the elegant gents’ outfitters, used to dominate the south side of Piccadilly. I once spotted the Labour cabinet minister Richard Crossman in there, standing ramrod-backed for all to see with his arm raised to shoulder height and folded at the elbow while an assistant measured him for a jacket. That kind of personal attention has become too expensive to supply, save at the very top of the market. The many-floored Simpson’s building is now the largest branch of Waterstone’s, the bookshop chain that is modelled on Barnes & Noble in the States.

Waterstone’s is now owned by a Russian-led consortium, but at least it has appointed as the managing director a vocational bookseller in James Daunt. Tim Waterstone founded the chain thirty years ago, after he was sacked as marketing manager for WH Smith, to whom he then went and sold out twelve years later. In turn, Smith’s sold the shops to HMV, already owners of the Dillon’s chain, which it promptly rebranded as Waterstone’s.

When I first knew both HMV and Dillon’s, each was a single store. Dillon’s was off Gower Street, serving its neighbour, University College London, where I was an undergraduate. You’d be there all day, turning up volumes of the most arcane academe. Foyle’s, on the opposite Charing Cross Road corner (now a sex shop) from its present site, had an even bigger stock. Mind, you could go mad in Foyle’s. Until quite recently, you had to collect an invoice from an assistant to whom you entrusted your purchases. You then went to a kiosk to pay the bill before reclaiming the bag that, if the assistant was on the ball, contained the books you had bought. Ridiculous.

Collector's item: Gamages catalogue

Hatchards of Piccadilly soldiers on – it’s part of the Waterstone’s group – as do the OUP shop in Oxford and the Blackwell’s chain that also began life in Oxford. But other fine bookshops have vanished. Politico’s, a unique place in Victoria that was heaven to browse, now trades only on-line. Camden’s compendious Compendium, full of more jaw-dropping titles than any other bookshop in the world, was replaced by a retailer of tat. Though it could hardly compare with specialist movie dealers in Los Angeles and New York, the Cinema Bookshop, which finally closed its doors at the beginning of 2006, was a grievous loss to London.

Collett’s, Zwemmer’s and Silver Moon, all of Charing Cross Road, are no more, like Hachette on Regent Street, Pipeline of Holborn (who also distributed), the Hammersmith branch of Any Amount of Books, Bumpus of Baker Street, Crouch End Bookshop, Prospero’s Books, Flask Walk Bookshop in Hampstead Village and, beyond London, William Smith in Reading (which burned down) and the vast (Robert) Maxwell’s in Oxford. And of course the disappearance of Ottakars (taken over by Waterstone’s) and the collapse of the twinned chains of Books etc and Borders, while they were less cherished than the idiosyncratic shops, was still a blow to books and the diversity of their dissemination.

In another part of the forest, the aforementioned HMV had occupied premises at 363 on the south side of Oxford Street for nearly half a century when I first shopped there: Elgar was guest of honour at the opening. Lodging for two years in a student rooming-house opposite Selfridge’s, I came to use HMV a lot. In those days (the late ‘60s), the shop’s relatively new embrace of pop music was confined to the basement. The ground floor – its sounds overwhelmed you as you entered – was given over wholly to classical music. The selection was magnificent, needless to say, the listening booths were elegant and comfortable and the reference section was unrivalled. A splendid spiral staircase, redolent of an ocean liner, took you to the more recondite selections on the upper floors.

Inside the old HMV

HMV abandoned these premises around the turn of the millennium for a less characterful building across the road, but closed that last year. The original shop was taken over by something American called Foot Locker, about which I know just two things: its marquee is disproportionately large for its or any other façade; and a teenager was stabbed to death just outside on Boxing Day. For both reasons, I shall never set foot in that locker. HMV retains another site on the north side of Oxford Street, close to the Tottenham Court Road turn. The last time I looked, it still kept a relatively generous stock of classical CDs in the basement, backed by knowledgeable staff, which is certainly not the case in any other remaining HMV branch that I have visited.

The HMV chain is now in dire trouble, suffering a double-whammy from the internet: on-line shopping and pirate downloading. Few one-off music shops can survive this onslaught. The wondrous Duck Son & Pinker of Bath, a music store that still emitted a pre-war whiff, closed its doors last year. In London, Dean Street used to maintain a fabulous store for lovers of the musical; its successor, Dress Circle in Upper St Martin’s Lane, struggled through some hairy moments last year. Off St Martin’s Lane used to be an indispensable shop for collectors of jazz – James Asman.

The economics of a single-site store or indeed a modest chain are bound to be problematic in a market dominated by increasingly diversified multi-site giants. A major player can negotiate favourable terms on bulk buys, indeed can insist on such terms. Lone stores cannot compete on price reductions. Nor can they service the lame-brained shopper who pops in just for a box of washing powder and emerges with an oven-ready chicken, three nylon blouses (reduced), a hanging basket of busy lizzies, a pack of do-it-yourself stone-cladding, a baby’s high chair, a CD of Ricky Martin’s Greatest Hits, a novel by Alan Titchmarsh and two jeroboams of Pina Colada (though without the washing powder).

Ah yes, the superstores. I really should get to those … TO BE CONTINUED.